A year after his [van Gogh's] murder, The Netherlands is a country transformed. Previously, only the Queen and Prime Minister had police protection, and ministers cycled to their ministries. Now, many politicians, writers and artists are considered to be in such danger that they have permanent armed guards and are driven around in bomb-proof armoured cars. The Interior Ministry has set up a special unit assessing death threats from Islamic extremists and providing protection squads. "In a democracy, strong opinion-leaders must be able to say what they want to say. Therefore, the Government will take the responsibility to protect them," a spokesman from the ministry said, refusing to divulge the number of people receiving protection.
In the parliament in The Hague, inside the airport-style security, two besuited bodyguards stand erect outside the office of Geert Wilders, Ali's political rival, checking closely anyone who has permission to enter. "I have been deluged with death threats," said the maverick right-wing MP, who has called for the deportation of Islamic extremists. Across town, police are investigating the shot fired at the window of Rita Verdonk, the Immigration Minister, who has become a hate figure among Muslim communities for introducing some of the strictest immigration laws in Europe, and insisting that Muslims should integrate.
Amsterdam councillor Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Dutch-Moroccan who has said that Moroccans who do not like The Netherlands should leave, is also under permanent protection. "He never gives interviews on that issue," a spokeswoman said. Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen has tried to build bridges with the Muslim community but, as the country's highest-profile Jew, he also needs 24-hour protection.
At Leiden University law school, professor Afshin Ellian, an Iranian refugee who has called for reform of Islam and even suggested that comedians should make jokes about it, is hustled through the electronically locked doors to his office by two bodyguards. "In The Netherlands, terrorists want to threaten not only the public ... they also want to kill public figures, such as artists, academics and politicians," he said. "It is not special in terms of Islam -- in Iran, it is normal to kill people who criticise Islam, as in Egypt and Iraq. It is legitimised by Islamic political theology, which says it is all right to kill someone if they are an enemy of Allah. But this is happening in Europe."
Academics and authorities in The Netherlands are trying to understand why, in their country, Islamic extremism has gone down the path of assassination, while in Britain and Spain it has produced bombings. The rise in the death threats started in 2002 when Pim Fortuyn, a flamboyant, gay, right-wing maverick, called for a halt to Islamic immigration. He complained that police did not take the death threats against him seriously. He was killed not by a Muslim, but by a left-wing activist who said he did it "for the Muslims". It was the first political killing in The Netherlands for three centuries and was seen as a one-off. But the murder of van Gogh two years later convinced people that the threat of political killing had become permanent.
A study by Frank Bovenkerk of the University of Utrecht confirmed the rise in death threats across the country, and their seriousness. "They are under real threat -- they would be killed without protection," he said. "We have a type of provocateur which is unprecedented in The Netherlands. They claim it is about freedom of speech, but it is about freedom of cursing." Even if the would-be assassins are foiled by the intelligence services and the protection squads, the death threats are already having some success in silencing criticism. "People are very afraid of saying things now," Professor Ellian said. "There is self-censorship."
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